Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.
There’s a difference between short-term and long-term happiness. Newly published research shows that when you are working out in aerobics class or doing your taxes, you may not enjoy the moment, but you will on average feel happier and more competent when it’s finished. The good news, though, is that you will be happy BOTH in the short term AND in the long term when doing activities that feel self-directed or freely chosen or that increase your connection to a friend.
The New Research on Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness
This news comes from Ryan Howell at San Franscisco State University, USA, and his colleagues, David Chenot, Graham Hill and Colleen Howell, in a research paper published online this month by the Journal of Happiness Studies. Perhaps even more importantly, they also found that the happier you are, the more “in the moment enjoyment” you’ll get from your freely-chosen or connection-building activities.
Howell’s research is in an area called self-determination theory and provides important new findings that will improve our understanding of what makes us happy and when. Self-determination theory (SDT) proposes that we have 3 fundamental needs; for autonomy (feeling self-directed or ‘the authors of our own lives’), competence (needing challenges that make us feel capable) and relatedness (feeling connected and close to others). (See our previous PPND articles on the influence of self-determination on sex, parenting, and motivation).
Numerous studies have shown that people whose needs are satisfied overall, feel happier. What Howell and his colleagues have shown is that not only does this happen over the longer term, but that daily and even hourly variations in how these needs are being met influence our daily and hourly happiness. (That’s happiness as measured by experienced enjoyment minus experienced stress). In other words, the office meeting where your boss acknowledges your support and contribution to the team may satisfy your relatedness need and boost your well-being for that hour. It will also probably add to your overall enjoyment of the day.
It’s Official: Hard Work Isn’t Fun
However, it looks like that momentary boost in happiness will not come from challenging work that builds our sense of competence. Howell and colleagues found what most of us have already experienced, namely, that sometimes a job is only satisfying when it’s over. I hate doing my taxes and paperwork, but my word, do I feel competent (and a little smug) once it’s finished. If you assess my well-being mid-task, it will be down in my boots; come back when it’s finished, and I’ll be (smugly and irritatingly) happy.
To achieve longer term happiness we sometimes choose to do activities that don’t bring us joy in the moment.“No pain, no gain,” as your grandmother or your aerobics instructor may have told you. Howell points out that because his participants were college students, they might be engaged in more challenging and difficult “competence-enhancing” tasks than most of us. But hey, we all do our taxes, write difficult letters, and some of us even learned to program video recorders (back in the days when technology could bite back). There are plenty of competence-enhancing activities in everyday life that will put a dent in your momentary happiness, only to provide you with a surge of satisfaction when they’re complete. So the next time you’re facing a happiness-sapping but competence-enhancing activity – keep the end in mind!
The other thing you might want to keep in mind is Howell’s finding (which confirms work by Harry Reis of Rochester University and his colleagues back in 2000) that the happier you are to start with, the more enjoyment you will get out of your choice, friendship, and hard work moments. In other words, you don’t “fill up” on autonomy, relatedness, and competence and then find that they no longer do anything for you. They are like Vitamin C – you can have them as much as you want. Your capacity to enjoy and benefit from choice, friendship, and hard work just keeps growing.
Howell, R. T., Chenot, D., Hill, G., & Howell, C. J. (2009). Momentary happiness: the role of psychological need satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies.
Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: The role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 419.